By Mark Uehling
December 15, 2002 | You have not come up with a new chemical entity in years. You are seriously awash in data and considering seven or eight brand-new technologies to pump still more information into your databases. What to do? Blame a vendor.
For 90 minutes, the BioITWorld Conference & Expo in San Diego featured six high-level speakers from major pharmaceutical companies. Officially, the panel was billed as "Organization and Governance of Life Science Informatics." Unofficially, the session was a time-honored finger-pointing exercise. The drug industry expressed its dissatisfaction with the truthfulness and overall value of commercial IT vendors -- without saying much about the quality of the code it develops internally.
Cart Before the Horse
The first gripe about IT vendors was ignorance of the pharmaceutical research process. "In 50% of the interactions that I have with vendors, they say, 'We have a great technology that can help you. Now tell me about drug discovery,'" said Rainer Fuchs, vice president of research informatics at Biogen.
The audience laughed, and the panel briefly digressed into how long it takes to discern how little an IT vendor knows: 10 minutes? Five? But given the lack of peer-reviewed publications or shared practical knowledge about IT at pharmaceutical companies, it was difficult to see how vendors could educate themselves, especially given the drug industry culture that even the panelists concede is insular, conservative, and secretive.
Shawn Ramer, vice president of research and development informatics at Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., thumped the commercial vendors, albeit to the life sciences, more softly. "There does seem to be a disconnect between the value proposition and what is offered," he said.
That view was echoed by Robin DeMent, who is in charge of global genetics research bioinformatics at GlaxoSmithKline. As an example of overstated claims, she cited computing grids. Networks at large, international pharmaceutical companies can already do most of what grids promise, she said: "At the moment, it's not showing us anything we can't already do [ourselves]."
Identifying the intermediate-term return on difficult IT projects is a recurring problem, DeMent said. Too often, she said, the vendor's focus is on the first year -- and the last. What happens in between gets lost. "The purchaser is expected to put up some ungodly amount of money up front on faith that this is what you're going to get in 10 years," she said. "You have got to find some way to find the benefit year [after] year."
David Pioli, head of lead generation of informatics at Aventis, had more blunt advice for vendors: "Don't go talk to my boss's boss first. Give up PowerPoint and tell me the truth."
Doing It Right
Despite their candor, the speakers had clearly considered the vendor relationship carefully. With a minimum of flippancy about the challenges confronting vendors, they conveyed their hope to work closely and collaboratively with them. The pharmaceutical companies simply don't believe that vendors' claims and promises should be swallowed whole.
Nor is there any panacea, said Biogen's Fuchs. "There is no blueprint for success," he said. "There is no silver bullet. There is not a secret recipe we can present. Every company will have to put those ingredients together in their own way."
Fuchs did say that his company evaluates different types of internal projects (and outside vendors) according to a few separate categories of risk and reward. "We are applying a portfolio management approach," he said. In other words, Biogen has set rules for working with vendors, and those depend on risk, ROI, and strategic imperative. High-risk projects are usually left to vendors, he said. Core strategic projects are developed only inside the company.
Fuchs also stated clearly that the pharmaceutical business will become an information business, not a chemical-manufacturing trade. "The industry is clearly going down this path to be a knowledge- or information-driven industry," he said.
An Olive Branch?
And there were a few concessions that perhaps relations with the vendor community had not always been managed with the utmost dexterity. Pioli of Aventis was perhaps the most gracious.
"I don't think we've learned how to handle the vendor community properly," Pioli said. " If we were rigorous about it, what we should be doing is treating the vendor offering like any other project that arises in-house. It should be, 'What's the potential benefit, what's the cost?' Right now, we don't do that."